Pollan Reflections on Writing: “How To Change Your Mind”

NYTimes Opinion 12/24/2018

“How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression and Transcendence.”

Quotes: ‘As I began to write my book, the accounts of my trips loomed up ahead like a range of tall, possibly insurmountable peaks. And matters only got worse when I began having the trips I intended to recount, a series of guided psychedelic journeys on a variety of different chemicals, including LSD, psilocybin, ayahuasca and a substance called 5-MeO-DMT. This last one, which is ingested by smoking the venom of the Sonoran Desert toad, was, I’d been told by a friend, “the Everest of psychedelics,”

What I realized, reading over my own dubious epiphanies, is that there is an inside and an outside to a psychedelic experience, and that one way to write about it would be to honor both perspectives more or less simultaneously. I wouldn’t take sides, in other words.

Irony was certainly an option, à la Koestler’s cosmic schmaltz. But while irony might have protected me from ridicule, it wouldn’t have been faithful to what I had felt and experienced — which had the power of a revealed truth.

What do you do with an insight like “love is everything”? I wondered aloud. “Is a platitude so deeply felt still just a platitude?” No, I decided: “A platitude is precisely what is left of a truth after it has been drained of all emotion. To resaturate that dried husk with feeling is to see it again for what it is: the loveliest and most deeply rooted of truths, hidden in plain sight.”

So in the end I did take sides, crediting the psychedelic experience rather than my abashed sober self’s take on it, but not before nodding to the reader’s doubts about my reliability (or sanity).

Once I had worked out this double stance, moving back and forth between the interiority of psychedelic consciousness and the ironies of ordinary consciousness, scenes I had approached with dread became great fun to write.

And then, having acknowledged the squishy new terrain of identity onto which we had stepped, I went on to characterize this “bare disembodied awareness, which gazed upon the scene of the self’s dissolution with benign indifference. I was present to reality but as something other than my self. … There was life after the death of the ego. This was big news.”

Aldous Huxley (The Doors of Perception, 1955) had developed his “perennial philosophy” — the idea that there is a common core of mystical insight at the root of all religions — and his encounter with a divine “Mind at Large” on mescaline confirms him in that belief. His notion that ordinary consciousness functions as a “reducing valve,” a kind of mental filter that restricts our access not only to the divine but to reality as it really is, was not so much inspired as vindicated by the experience.

Henri Michaux forsakes writing altogether in favor of drawing, filling pages with abstract patterns of lines meant to convey qualities of an experience — particularly its nonlinearity and velocity — beyond language’s reach. To him, metaphor, description, interpretation are all crutches — and what good are crutches when there is no floor?

The mind will not tolerate mental chaos for very long. Indeed, this is one of the most interesting aspects of psychedelic experience: how it allows you to observe the mind in real time as it imposes form — a metaphor, a hallucination, a pattern — on the anarchy of thought and sensation that the molecules incite.

“I doubt either Michaux or Huxley would approve of my approach of offering up imperfect metaphors accompanied by disclaimers, but at least it allowed me to construct a rough analogue of an experience that remains ineffable.”


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